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The Challenge of Serving Those Who Have Served


One year into a new grantmaking initiative focused on women veterans, The Simmons Foundation and United Way of Greater Houston share their lessons learned and hope for the future.

By Kelli King-Jackson, The Simmons Foundation and Ronnie Hagerty, United Way of Greater Houston

Last year, The Simmons Foundation wrote a blog post about an exciting partnership with our local United Way and nonprofits serving female veterans. We were excited and naïve about the work we would accomplish. You know that feeling. A great idea to address a community need does not translate the way you planned but the most powerful element of grantmaking is learning to course-correct for the benefit of communities.

As we began to reflect on the year, we wanted to share what we learned and how we intend to move forward and continue to challenge ourselves. This article is written from the perspective of United Way as the agency providing capacity building support for the funded organizations and the Foundation as the entity trying to better understand our impact.

United Way Perspective

Recognizing the growing number of veterans living in the Houston metro area, United Way of Greater Houston launched a multifaceted survey of service providers, employers, veterans and their families to learn what challenges they were facing as they returned to civilian life.

In response to the concerns identified, we began facilitating quarterly meetings to help organizations coordinate services to fill gaps, encourage collaboration, and promote regular exchange of information regarding programs. These meetings have helped to fill gaps, reduce duplication in services and expand outreach to veterans looking for help. A steering committee formed from among service providers has coordinated several conferences featuring prominent speakers, highlighting emerging trends, and introducing new or innovative programs.

Recognizing that female veterans face unique challenges, we conducted a survey targeting that population exclusively. While some obstacles identified were similar to those encountered by their male counterparts, women noted the following issues:

  • Family demands and lack of transitional support 
  • Military sexual trauma 
  • Limited access to child care and medical services tailored to the needs of women 
  • Lack of information about services available
  • Feeling that their service is not valued

One survey respondent wisely observed that “military members are taught to be soldiers, not veterans.”

Working in partnership with The Simmons Foundation, we launched a Peer Learning Circle comprised of organizations serving female veterans. The group meets monthly to discuss their experiences helping women returning from military service, identify issues encountered, and brainstorm solutions.

While male veterans tend to congregate with other men who have served, women are less likely to do so, making outreach especially difficult. As one circle member noted, “Our female veterans are hiding in plain sight.” Collectively, members of the circle have developed creative new outreach strategies and have developed several collaborative programs as a result of their trust-building and information-sharing in the Peer Learning Circle.

Foundation Perspective

Our foundation stumbled upon ‘veterans’ as a community issue in need of support. Having attended a United Way summit in late 2012 we heard data from surveys that revealed:

  • Houston has one of the highest returning veteran populations.
  • Transition from the military is hard for veterans and their families for reasons such as employment, childcare, family housing, etc.
  • Women veterans were experiencing needs unique to men but typical for women (i.e. childcare, access to women-focused health care, family stability, etc.)

We are proud to say that our local community and our Foundation responded quickly, knowing that our intent and the data from the field were solid, we would still learn and develop the program along the way. In establishing a special fund to support organizations specifically serving female veterans we saw early on:

  1. Traditional veteran-serving organizations were more familiar with government grants than that of private philanthropy; 
  2. The size of private grants often paled in comparison to federal dollars for programs serving veterans; and
  3. Traditional nonprofits could not easily translate their programs and ways of engaging clients to veterans, especially women.

During the first year of funding, we found that several of our organizations had unique challenges as they served this population. They struggled to find and retain women veterans often because they were not adapting their outreach strategies to this new population. Our organizations also struggled to understand the psyche of women veterans. In fact, there was an underlying assumption that organizations that had successfully worked with women would be able to ‘connect’ with the women veterans better than the veterans-serving organizations.

This assumption was false. Women who served in the military experience problems like childcare, transportation, family stability, housing, etc. similar to women in the community-at-large. However, women veterans have been socialized into a distinct community that differs from the average woman. Different is not bad, it’s just different.

After we surveyed our grantees in year one we decided, with their approval, to continue the collaboration. Today, three of the original four organizations continue to participate in our efforts which include a one year grant as well as participation in a leadership circle for the key staff running the veterans programming.

This spring we will meet with our grantees to have a dialogue about ways in which they think our Foundation and the local funding community can continue to address the needs of women veterans. At the end of this second year of funding we plan to share our lessons learned with other funders in hopes that the grantmaking around women veterans in Houston will continue to grow in size and effectiveness.

Kelli King-Jackson is the Program Officer at The Simmons Foundation. Ronnie Hagerty is the Assistant Vice President of Community Relations at United Way of Greater Houston. 

Photo courtesy of Catholic Charities.



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